Lessons Learned From Back To Back ~19 Mile Days In The Whites
I took Friday 7/7/23 off of work to hike Galehead, the Twins, and Garfield. That was about 18.7 miles and 6,400' of vert. The route took me 8.75 hours. The next day I did an out-and-back of Zealand and the Bonds starting from Zealand Road. That was 19.1 miles and 5,400'. I spent 9.75 hours on trail.
I need to improve my power-to-weight ratio. This thinking comes from my interest in cars, where you can't judge the performance of a car simply by the horsepower and torque rating. The straightline performance of the vehicle also depends on its weight, heavier cars going more slowly than lighter ones, all else being equal. If I drop some fat mass while maintaining muscle mass, there's less of me to propel over the hills and control on the descents. That would make me more efficient moving through the mountains. On a short 5 hour day, I don't think it matters as much. When I start pushing time-on-feet to 8, 10, and more hours (such as I'd need for ultras), that improved efficiency should help over time.
I get in my head when things aren't going well. On day 2, my wheels starting coming off on the descent of Bond, and came off entirely coming back from Bondcliff and ascending Bond for the second time. Lost my mojo. I got upset with myself, criticizing my lack of fitness, remembering every strength workout I've missed, run that didn't get done, and bad diet day. I came across some trail runners coming through on their own adventures, and I wasn't running. At all. Hadn't been for most of the day. Felt bad. Here I think of myself as a trail runner, and I'm in survival mode, just trying to get back to Zealand Hut, conserving water because there are no good water sources between the hut and Bondcliff. I need to eat but don't want to (forcing myself), I need to drink, my feet were soaked for the second day in a row and hurting enough to intrude on my thoughts. I felt like a fraud. A pretend "athlete" not able to do my thing two days in a row because I'm too fat, too weak, and too tired. I assumed every trail runner I saw was having an incredible day setting personal bests and probably FKTs, and figured they saw a loser having a bad day on their way by. Now, that's a terrible way to think, but that's what was happening in my brain as I struggled the ~5 hot, buggy, muddy, wet miles between Bond and the hut. Was that reality? No. I knew it, too. There was the logical part of my brain chirping distantly, reminding me that I'm training for volume and distance now. These longer days are just starting, and I'd beat myself up the previous day on a rough hike with some seriously strenuous miles (and 5 ankle rolls).
I don't know what to do with my poles. I have been using trekking poles as a hiker for many years. I'm used to them, and I rely on them. My climbing technique integrates poles heavily. In this way, I use a lot of upper body strength to take load off of my legs and propel myself uphill. I can really climb. Here's the problem with poles. They are useful in that one scenario of climbing steep terrain. They are useless or even detrimental in most other scenarios. On the flats, poles aren't useful except perhaps for crossing rivers & streams or trying to navigate a tricky section of mud. And even in those scenarios, I've been using poles less and less. My core strength has increased so much over the last several months, that I just don't have the challenge with balance I did. The water crossing that needs poles is more frequent this season where the Whites have had so much rain, but I barely slow down for crossings now unless there's a lot of volume creating a puzzle to solve. When descending, I have better flow when I stash the poles and have the freedom to use my hands to negotiate a tricky boulder or ledge. Leaning hard on poles when descending and then lowering my feet onto the next bit is awkward, error-prone, and has no flow whatsoever. All this in mind, I'm thinking of moving to using poles only when ascending for a long period of time, say several hundred feet or more of climbing, and stashing them otherwise. I have to sort out a new rhythm, though--get my head around it if I do this.
I have to find food I want to consume. My go-to trail food for years has been Clif bars and similar, such as Picky bars. They provide ~150-250 calories for a reasonable cost. However, they are heavy to chew through and summon the Brown Barking Mountain Duck's explosive quacking later in the day. There's nothing more annoying than making your way down the trail and having your GI tract distract you as you're trying to make time. Sigh. Besides the GI distress, I just don't want to eat the stupid things. I need the carbs to fuel the effort, but it feels like an effort to get out a bar and eat it. I need to play more with liquid nutrition. I have done a little experimentation with Infinit, and need to get this dialed in. I know that if I don't get the mix right, my stomach cramps. But, ingesting liquid was the only thing that really appealed to me in the mountains these last two hot, humid days. Well...as I'm writing this, I remember that I did use Clif Bloks in the summer of 2022, and liked them. They are easy to consume and always appealed to me. I could go back to them, too. As another aside, bar products have a lot of waste, too--the wrappers are a thing you have to track and pack out of the woods. That is, unless you unwrap them before the route and stick them in a Ziploc bag, which is what I did. Still a pain to deal with them.
I need to improve the ratio of time-on-feet to energy expended. On these two days, I pretty much kept a variety of walking paces from near 4mph at best to whatever I could muster depending on terrain and how I was feeling. I'd jog or run in short bursts if the trail allowed and I could summon the motivation. This was intentional because of the consecutive long days I'd planned, and because I don't know what I don't know. I'm just getting my head around these longer days, and I'm unsure how my body is going to do. But there's a tradeoff to going more slowly--I'm on my feet for longer. I think it's possible that if I'd pushed harder on, say, the cruisable easy miles on the way in, that would have reduced time on my feet and maybe the stress on my body overall. However, I'm not sure about that. As pace increases and load on my cardiovascular, pulmonary, and musculoskeletal systems also increases, there has to be a breakpoint where I'm adding more stress and doing more damage than I can sustain. But I also know this is trainable. Look at Courtney Dauwalter, who set the women's course record for the Western States 100 a few weeks ago. She's trained herself to be able to run at high output for many hours. At race pace, she pays for that. She vomited when it was all done and did I'm not sure what other sort of damage. She's got a heavy race schedule this season, and I'm curious to see how well her body holds up. Watching Courtney and many other ultrarunners do their thing and listening to them share their training perspectives on podcasts has taught me that it's possible to build a body, even as an older athlete, that can take the pounding. All of them say it takes years, and I'm okay with that. I have some years of hiking behind me, including a little bit of thru hiking. I'm just starting with the running and strength training. I'll get there. In the meantime, I need to sort out the balance between pushing hard and placing extra stress on my body with the benefit of reduced time on my feet to complete a route. I suspect that breakpoint moves as my fitness increases.